Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What about McLaren?

We are less than a month away from the beginning of the 2007 Formula One Season. Still, I doubt anyone can be sure where McLaren stands.

Although the team finished 3rd on the 2006 championship, it did not show much speed and did not win any races. After what can be called a bad season, there are many changes to McLaren. The most noticeable is that the race driver line-up has changed. Current F1 champion Fernando Alonso and current GP2 champion Lewis Hamilton will take the responsibility of changing the team’s fate.

Although Kimi Raikkonen is gone, I believe that McLaren did not lose anything. Alonso is a great driver who can drive fast and win when possible. But he can also save the car and get points when the situation allows. Some say that he is the same ‘breed’ as the ’72 and ’74 title winner Emerson Fittipaldi. In my opinion, Raikkonen and Alonso are equally balanced, but the fact that Alonso has proven that he can be a champion makes him the best option for McLaren. If they don’t win races in 2007, everyone can be sure the problem is not the driver.

Team principal Ron Dennis has shown an aggressive attitude – which I applaud – by giving the second race seat to young Hamilton. So what that he is 22 years old? He is fast and very, very smart. I am sure he will learn what takes to fight for the world championship pretty quickly. Having Alonso by his side will remove some of the pressure from his shoulders and he may even win a race or two.

All this can only be true if McLaren has a winning car, though. That is a big ‘if’. Some of the changes on the team involve the departure of many engineers and technicians. Many have gone to RBR, including former lead engineer Adrian Newey. I think that the 2006 bad results were already a reflex of Newey’s departure in the beginning of last season. Although he had designed the car in 2005, he was not there to get that extra speed that comes with engineering improvements after the testing sessions or the races. If the current engineering body cannot improve on a design they did not make, how good are they to make a new car and keep improving it?

There is also the engine question. The Mercedes-Benz engine seemed reliable. Of 36 race starts – 2 cars, 18 races – the McLaren cars did not finish 11. That is not a good number. But if we breakdown by category, we get: 6 accidents, 2 engine failures, 1 electrical failure, 1 fuel pump failure, and 1 heat shield fire. In today’s F1, teams usually report engine failure as something else, unless it comes with a gigantic puff of smoke. This is done to protect the image of the engine’s brand. In the worst case scenario, even if we add up the electrical and fuel pump failures to the engine category, we get 4 engine failures. This is not perfect, but not that bad.

The problem was that McLaren could not match Ferrari and Renault in terms of speed, especially during races. Sometimes even BMW was ahead of them -as they seem to be during the 2007 pre-season testing. Since they showed some speed during qualifying, maybe the engine did have enough power, but they could not use 100% during the races, in order to avoid braking down. If this is the case, the new 19,000 rpm limit for 2007 will help them. But again we are speaking of too many ‘maybes’ and ‘ifs’...

To sum up, McLaren needs to overcome 3 big issues to become number 1 again: 1) new drivers getting used to the car, 2) car design and improvement under new responsibility, 3) lack of engine power during races. I do not think they can overcome them all. I think they will lose the constructor’s championship to Ferrari. The fight with Renault and BMW will also be very close. So they may end up anywhere between 2nd and 4th.

As for the driver’s championship, I do not think Alonso will make it as well. He will certainly score a lot of points. Hamilton will probably make many rookie mistakes, so Alonso will win this battle. At this time, though, it seems not possible for him to finish better than both Ferrari drivers: Massa and Raikkonen. Maybe one of them, but not both.

Still, if I knew what was going on with McLaren, I would change the title of this post.

--Andre N.

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